Games become more like chess matches in postseason softball. Coaches make moves with the knowledge that the wrong decision could result in their season coming to an end.
Maryland softball finds itself in that exact situation. The Terps’ season hangs in a fragile balance this week as they head to the Big Ten tournament in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
The program recorded the most wins since 2011, but still needs a strong performance in the conference tournament to achieve its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2012.
Despite a lower ranking than other programs — Maryland finished tied for seventh in the Big Ten standings — coach Mark Montgomery is extremely confident in his team’s chances.
“I think we win the Big Ten tournament, I’m sure there’s other people who would laugh at me if I said that, but we’re capable,” Montgomery said.
A national tournament bid would be Montgomery’s first as the Terps’ head coach and put an exclamation point on a season full of accomplishments for a program that has been stuck near the bottom of the Big Ten rankings for years. But navigating the Big Ten bracket won’t be an easy road for Maryland.
[Struggles with Big Ten foes could keep Maryland softball out of the postseason]
The eighth-seeded Terps will take on the ninth-seeded Hawkeyes Wednesday — a game Maryland must win to keep their slim NCAA tournament chances alive. The Terps took two out of three games from the Hawkeyes earlier this season, but Iowa walked-off Maryland in the series finale.
Even if the Terps defeat the Hawkeyes, their toughest test of the season would still await. Northwestern, the Big Ten’s top-seeded team, ranks 19th in the country and eighth in RPI. The Wildcats finished conference play 20-3, cruising to a regular season league title.
Montgomery thinks Maryland will likely need to beat Northwestern to be considered for a NCAA tournament bid.
“Maybe we can take two out of three [in the Big Ten tournament]. Maybe that’s good enough,” Montgomery said. “The problem is we’re in the bubble, and when you’re in the bubble you don’t decide, there’s a committee of people in a room that decides.”
[Maryland softball tops Illinois 6-1 in regular season finale]
One advantage Maryland has over many of its Big Ten competitors is its pitching prowess. Seniors Courtney Wyche and Trinity Schlotterbeck have been dominating conference foes recently, with each picking up two wins in the Terps’ past four games. The pair of pitchers have valuable experience, which could pay dividends in their late-season run.
The Terps rank fourth in the Big Ten in combined ERA. Iowa and Northwestern both rank behind Maryland in the stat at fifth and seventh in the conference, respectively.
It will take a stretch of great play, which the Terps have struggled to produce all year, for them to make a postseason appearance. Maryland has only swept two Big Ten series this season, coming against two of the conference’s worst teams Michigan State and Illinois.
But the Terps have put up big performances in single games against top opponents. Maryland took down ranked teams in Oklahoma State and Oregon earlier this season, which leaves Montgomery confident in his team’s big game ability.
“We’ve proven we can play with any team in the conference,” Montgomery said.